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Police, parole bills are on packed agenda for Legislature's final days

The Senate Chamber floor during a legislative session

The Senate Chamber floor during a legislative session at the New York state Capitol, on March 8. Credit: AP / Hans Pennink

ALBANY — Legislators are jockeying dozens of bills in the final two weeks of the scheduled session, including major changes to laws governing police and parole, stronger sexual harassment laws and a "No One is Above the Law Act" aimed at former President Donald Trump.

But this extraordinarily hectic year, which included measures to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, also appears likely to end without achieving some major goals of the session that ends June 10. Among them is a long-proposed move to a single-payer health care system in a vastly expanded Medicaid-type program that could insure all New Yorkers.

These are the days in Albany of long nights, short tempers and towers of empty pizza boxes outside office doors. More than 100 major bills require extensive debate. In addition, there are hundreds of other essential bills authorizing local action, such as creating a park or other local government actions requiring state approval. Among them are bills that would approve a public takeover of New York American Water.

What to know

  • Major changes to laws governing police and parole and stronger sexual harassment laws are likely to pass in the final days of the state legislative session.

  • But a move to a single-payer health care system and a comprehensive climate change effort may not.

  • Hundreds of bills authorizing local action, such as creating a park, also must be approved.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo added to the legislature’s tasks last week when he made two appointments to the state’s highest court, which require Senate confirmation, along with several other judicial appointments.

As one lobbyist put it, the list of bills gaining or losing support is changing every day, with each new priority bumping another.

"Every session takes on a life of its own and for those of us who have been in the legislature for a while, I hope we have learned to stay united, especially in times of crisis," said Assemb. Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove), who also is heading the Assembly Judiciary Committee’s investigation of sexual harassment and other accusations against Cuomo, which could lead to impeachment proceedings.

"We are focused," Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) told reporters. "This is our time to shine and we are really fully engaged."

A bill with support in both chambers would raise and clarify the legal standard for police to use deadly force. Under the bill backed by Democratic Attorney General Letitia James, police could only use deadly force as a last resort and would face greater sanctions if they violate the standard. Officers would need to exhaust spoken efforts and other measures before resorting to lethal force, she said.

But Cuomo on Wednesday raised doubts about the proposal by James, who also is investigating sexual harassment complaints against him. Cuomo said the priorities must be to reduce crime in New York City and to rebuild trust between police and communities.

"There is no doubt use of force is a major element that we have all been talking about for years," Cuomo said. "But there is also no doubt that the problem is bigger than that and that’s where I want to start."

Meanwhile, police unions are exerting pressure against legislation aimed at them.

"This bill seeks to paint police officers into a corner and allow the attorney general to persecute police officers for any use of force at her whim," said Patrick Phelan, executive director of the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police.

"This bill is authored by people who sit in posh, well-appointed offices in safety and comfort who have never had to face danger or make a split-second, life-or-death decision in their life," said Phelan, a former police chief. "It requires a police officer to have an unreasonable amount of information while he is making a split-second decision on the street."

Stewart-Cousins said the reforms aren’t anti-police. "Everyone deserves to know that their rights and lives are valued," she said last week.

Additional bills would require police officers to intervene when a fellow officer is using excessive force, would restrict interrogation methods, no-knock warrants and use of drones, and mandate police wear body cameras.

Another bill would prohibit police agencies from receiving "military-grade tactical weapons." The bill comes after police have accepted small tanks, tactical rifles and heavy mine-resistant vehicles. Critics of the military hardware captured on video in Black Lives Matter protests last summer say it threatens communities. The bill wouldn’t restrict transfer of counterterrorism equipment used by the NYPD and State Police.

Related bills involve parole reforms, including a "clean slate" bill that could erase criminal records of individuals who aren’t on sex offender lists, and an elder parole bill that would provide prisoners more than 55 years old who served 15 or more years with an automatic parole hearing. The bills aim to return more prisoners to productive lives, but the state District Attorneys Association argues the measures would radically alter the probation process by allowing the hearing in some cases to be held before the minimum sentence is completed.

"In a civilized society, no New Yorker's future should be limited by the darkest moment in their past," said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D-Brooklyn).

Other high-profile issues are the subject of bills still alive last week, according to legislators. The biggest of the sexual harassment bills would weaken "nondisclosure agreements" that many private sector employers require employees to sign in settlements of cases. The NDAs keep instances and the identity of abusers private.

Strong support continues in the legislature for the proposed No Citizen is Above the Law Act, which was aimed at Trump. The bill would not start the statute of limitations on crimes for presidents of the United States until they leave office. Trump faces civil and criminal investigations in New York begun while he was president.

Negotiations also continue on measures to make voting easier, based on the success of some emergency measures during the pandemic last year to reduce lines at polling places. Among the bills are one that would allow voters to track their mailed-in absentee ballot and another would provide for earlier counting of absentee ballots so winners can be declared on election night or soon after. Another bill would further expand the period of mail-in voting.

Yet many other major goals of the 2021 session appear unlikely to gain passage in these final days, legislators said, such as the single-payer health care system, overhauling ethics enforcement and a comprehensive climate change effort.

Progressive Democrats believed the long-standing proposal to create a single-payer health care could gain traction because Democrats control both chambers of the legislature, but the undertaking was thought by some legislators to be too much to take on this busy year.

A comprehensive climate change effort that would include more carbon taxes and incentives for electric vehicles and green technology also became a longer shot last week. A measure that could increase the sale of electric vehicles in New York, once a promising prospect for environmentalists, faces strong opposition by the powerful automobile dealers’ lobby. Authorizing the unionization of gig economy workers such as Uber drivers also seemed unlikely to pass, legislators said.

Discussions continued last week between the Senate and Assembly to revamp ethics enforcement in Albany. The Senate passed a bill to weaken Cuomo’s appointment power for the Joint Commission on Public Ethics. But some legislators said it is too big an issue for the remaining days of the session.

Here are some of the remaining bills with momentum going into the final seven session days of the legislative session:

  • A 21st century antitrust law aimed at big technology companies. The law would allow the state to take action against corporations that manipulate internet search results to favor their own products, avoid competitors and undercut competitors to drive them out of business.
  • A “wage-theft” law in the construction industry. Labor unions, a powerful lobby in the legislature, have pushed for a bill that would require a prime contractor to compensate a worker if that worker wasn’t paid by a subcontractor. The measure is opposed by business interests that say the measure would force contractors to unfairly pay for the misconduct of subcontractors.
  • A gun-control measure that would allow victims of gun violence to sue firearms manufacturers.
  • A measure that gained compromise last week would prohibit the sale of cosmetics that had been tested on animals. Sponsors say such testing is cruel and often lethal. If passed, New York would join six other states that already ban the sale of new cosmetics tested on animals.

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